A new poetry collection by a TISS professor protests the global trend of rising intolerance and xenophobia
Dr Ashwani Kumar, a politi cal science professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, will release his second book of poetry at the Mumbai Poetry Festival this weekend. The collection, titled Banaras and The Other, is the result of two years of work and seeks to capture the truth of what he calls today’s “fractured times“. Born in what is now Jharkhand but was then part of Bihar, Kumar spoke to Mumbai Mirror about how Banaras became the theme of this collection, why poetry cannot divorce itself from the political, and the need for vernacular influences in English poetry in India.How did you come to pick Banaras as the theme for this collection?
I am an émigré, a social scientist by profession. I have lived mostly out of a suitcase while I spent time at TISS. In the last five, seven years, I went across India, and I started looking at what is called the biography of a city. In English poetry I find the one city that stands really tall is BombayMumbai.There is no other city. What I am trying to do is I am paying tribute to Bombay poets but I am also contesting the hegemonic presence of BombayMumbai in literature, especially in poetry. I tried to discover the city which could be the other, what could be the other of Mumbai? Mark Twain said Banaras is older than history but of late it has become not just a spiritual city, not just a religious city, but it is becoming a political fantasy.The book is actually about a political fiction, a political fantasy, which I was not able to construct here in Mumbai because this city has become a neo-liberal fantasy.It has become a desire economy, the commercial capital. Mumbai is not a spiritual city, it is not a religious city, though there are religious riots here. Mumbai has also become very majoritarian and if you look at Banaras, for the last four or five years it seems to be struggling against its own myth; against its own history and largely becoming a political capital rather than a religious capital and a spiritual capital of Hindus. It is also becoming a majoritarian space.That’s why most of the poems in this collection relate to Banaras.
How does your political science work influence your poetry?
At the subconscious level, I don’t think my training in political science matters, or my political activism. That space where I work out my poetry is pretty much autonomous of my political position or ideology. In the conscious world, certainly my training in politics, my political ideology, my activism, my experiences and my memories of political involvement do influence in between the lines and in the invisible spaces between poems.At that level, I must acknowledge that I am deeply political and a very committed political. So for me, and here I beg to differ with my fellow poets, I am really committed to poetry as a political project. For me writing poetry is not a spiritual experience or a romantic experience. For me writing poetry, is, as I said earlier, with regard to my first book (My Grandfather’s Imaginary Typewriter), being in politics is for me the writing project. That defines me. The day I stop being in politics or with politics, I would stop writing poetry. So it is a deeply political project.
Why be political through poetry and not through other forms of writing?
Poetry is more esoteric than prose.In fractured times, writing poetry is far more profound if you write in esoteric language. Prose is a far more dulling experience; it is prosaic. That is why, going back to Banaras, I didn’t want to capture it in a prosaic sense.I wanted to capture its truth and simultaneously capture the truths of our fractured and fissured times. The book is about rising intolerance, xenophobia, about fears and it is a conscious decision to resist and to protest. The whole tradition of English poetry, seems to have become dull and less engaged with the politics of the current times.And it has become more about being melodious, being more musical, an attempt to rearrange words in a certain craft. It has become more craft driven and less about real, passionate engagement with the politics of the times, of the truth of the times.
Aside from the politics, how do the poems reflect your experience of being an immigrant in the city?
English poetry in India is largely a Mumbaikar‘s dream. The aesthetics are of a Mumbaikar; they are trained in a particular way. Images are done in a particular way. What is happening is that English poetry does not have people originally writing in English but with vernacular flavour, with provincial worlds. These worlds have come to Mumbai more as a migrant worker sweating out, giving blood to the city, making the city richer, more prosperous, liveli er, they brought robustness to the city, but the city missed out because nobody came from these vernacular worlds writing English in original English. So as a Bihari coming to Mumbai and producing English poetry, especially in the towering and lingering shadows of Mumbai poets such as Gieve Patel and Adil Jussawala, I bring that provincial world, that vernacular flavour, to English poetry.
The Mumbai Poetry Festival will be held at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences on the 22nd and 23rd of April.Seven books of poetry will be released at the event.
Life frightens me often
Death does not.
Dead men do not frighten me
I am ready to join any crowd
Every second night I celebrate with the dead
Playing cards and singing songs
Discussing about life that doesn’t matter
Waking up is a curse.
And life frightens me
Death does not.
Silence in life frightens me
Streets filled with walking corpses
In the prisons of their own minds
Sealed lips of the teachers
Knowledge not to be known
Feelings that are not felt
The smell of death on the living
The sound of breath of the dead
Vultures around the living
Cooking food on the funeral pyre
Life frightens me
But death does not.
And I am frightened
About the pretentious dead breathing
But death does not frighten me
Silence in the graves frighten me
The graves do not frighten me
And when the dead bodies do not wake up
I keep telling myself
That it is safer to get drunk
On the silence of the graves.
I know why the caged bird sings: Ramesh Gaichor (second from right) and Sagar Gorkhe (third from right) celebrate their release from prison with fellow Kabir Kala Manch activists Photo: Karan Khosla
Finger-pointing songs: Sambhaji Bhagat (in blue shirt) and Kabir Kala Manch at a 2013 performance in Bengaluru Photo: K Bhagya Prakash
“I think they’re just waiting to rearrest them,” jokes Jyoti Jagtap, a member of Pune’s Dalit-Left cultural troupe Kabir Kala Manch (KKM), to the small group of people waiting in the visitor’s courtyard of Navi Mumbai’s Taloja jail. We’ve been here for over an hour now, awaiting the release of KKM members Sagar Gorkhe and Ramesh Gaichor on bail after four years in prison for alleged links to Naxalites, when Jagtap notices a group of plain-clothes cops standing next to the jail’s imposing blue gate. A passing policeman tells us they’re from the Intelligence Bureau. Gaichor’s sister looks on in concern as the rest of the group trades stories they’ve heard of people being bundled into waiting police jeeps as soon as they step out of jail. The mood is one of anticipation, but with a strong undercurrent of tension and worry.
“You know when you’re returning from a vacation and you’re close to home, it feels like time has slowed down,” says a middle-aged woman — a lawyer — who has travelled with the group all the way from Pune. “It’s like that. We’re all just waiting for the moment we can finally see them.”
That moment arrives half an hour later. Gorkhe and Gaichor walk out of the blue gate with big smiles plastered on their faces, their eyes searching the courtyard for their families and comrades. Gaichor is immediately smothered by hugs from his sister and his wife Jagtap. A few steps behind, Gorkhe is reunited with his wife (and KKM member) Rupali Jadhav, while fellow KKM members Deepak Dengle and Siddharth Bhonsle pat him on the back. On the road outside the jail’s main gate, the two pose for pictures in between phone calls to their parents. Their friends hand out sweets to passers-by, including the jail officials who walk up to congratulate them on their release. Once things settle down a bit, the group relocates to a nearby chai-stall, where Gorkhe and Gaichor regale us with jokes and stories about their time inside. The sense of relief all around is palpable. Their six-year-long nightmare is finally ending.
Founded by college students in 2002 as a response to the Godhra riots, the KKM is a troupe of cultural activists who rose to prominence in Maharashtra with their songs about caste oppression and workers’ rights. In 2011, Dengle and Bhonsle were arrested by the Maharashtra Anti-Terror Squad for their alleged links to Naxalites. The rest of the group went into hiding, resurfacing only when Dengle and Bhonsle were let out on bail in 2013. Bombay High Court Justice Abhay Thipsay wrote in his ruling, “It is surprising that highlighting the wrongs prevalent in the society and insisting that there is a need to change the situation was considered as evidence… of them being members of the Communist Party of India (Maoist).” Emboldened by the ruling, former KKM president Sheetal Sathe and her husband Sachin Mali — the two have since left the group citing ideological differences — courted arrest in April 2013, and the rest of the group followed in May. Sathe, pregnant at the time, got bail three months later. Gorkhe, Gaichor and Mali — who were lodged in Arthur Road jail — would have to wait for almost four more years.
“I wake up in the middle of the night and look around, just to make sure I’m not back in the barracks,” says Gorkhe, when I meet him and the rest of the group a week after his release. We’re sprawled on the living room floor of his small flat in Pimpri Chinchwad, discussing the difficulties of adjusting to life outside prison. Gorkhe speaks about being stuck, unable to go past the haze of prison memories. Yesterday, he finally sat down to watch Sairat, but five minutes into the film he was staring at the wall, lost in thoughts. “There’s a negativity in prison that tries to break you,” adds Gaichor, who has been silent and pensive. “The feeling of being completely under someone else’s control, being unable to make even the simplest choices for yourself. The people who control you, they don’t look at you like you’re a human being. You’re not even an animal, they’re better with cats and dogs. So you have to fight that negativity with studying, writing, creativity, or you will go insane.”
Gorkhe and Gaichor thought they were well prepared for prison. A day in Arthur Road’s overcrowded and filthy general barracks quickly disabused them of that notion. Around 250 inmates were packed into a space meant for 80. There was no space to sit, and inmates were sleeping on their sides in tightly packed rows. Three of the four bathrooms had broken doors, and only one working tap between them. The food was so bad that they barely ate for the first few days.
The two were later shifted to the high-security section in Taloja jail, which also houses those booked under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA) as well as terrorism-related cases. The situation was a little better there, they had their own room with a functioning fan and 24-hour water supply. But life in the anda cell brought new challenges. Locked away in their rooms for most of the day, unable to even see each other, the inmates struggle with loneliness and depression. Events of the day would swim in their head all night, conversations replayed over and over in a state of anxiety. Sleepless hours would be spent thinking about their homes and families. Gorkhe was so disturbed he went to the prison psychiatrist for medication, but that only made him vomit. He eventually took to meditation to deal with the stress.
“Also in the anda cell was a policeman held for a fake encounter and he used to scream at night. A couple of people tried to kill themselves,” interjects Dengle. When Dengle was picked up outside his workplace in 2011, the police allegedly tortured him for a day in lockup before registering an arrest. Gorkhe and Gaichor’s high-profile status as political prisoners at least protected them from the beatings meted out to less-fortunate prisoners. But there were other little ways to harass inmates — verbal abuse, interception of private letters, confiscation of books and reading material. Both men were also upset that their wives and comrades were harassed by the police and even — in one instance — assaulted by the ABVP. They kept their spirits up by engaging in political analyses of the burning issues of the day, filing RTIs, helping other inmates with paperwork and once organising the inmates to protest against the terrible prison food.
What also kept them going was their art — the two not only wrote over 100 songs, they also worked on plays and books of poetry. They would perform the songs they wrote to other inmates and sympathetic jail officials, or constantly sing them to each other so they wouldn’t forget the tune before they found a way to put it down. “It really helped us cope,” says Gorkhe. “We knew we couldn’t do anything physically but at least we could work with ideas.”
While they were in prison, they say their families struggled with police harassment and the social stigma attached to the ‘Naxalite’ tag. Their parents and siblings, they allege, continue to be regularly visited by the police, who intimidate and occasionally pick someone up for a few hours of interrogation. When the group was still in hiding, one policeman allegedly visited Jadhav’s mother, showed her a picture of a woman killed in a police encounter and claimed it was her daughter. The mother had fainted on hearing this. When Jadhav took up a job as a receptionist, the police started turning up at her office to investigate her. Meanwhile, Gorkhe’s neighbours and extended family started a social boycott of his parents. “Their water was turned off, their electricity was switched off,” remembers Gorkhe. “They had to deal with constant taunts from their neighbours. Eventually, they had to shift out of that basti, despite not having any money and no jobs.”
Legal experts have warned us for years about the flagrant abuse of anti-terrorism laws like the UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act) to target activists and non-violent dissidents. Over 77,000 people were arrested under its heavily criticised predecessor TADA, with thousands of them spending long stints in jail as their trials dragged on. Only 725 were ever convicted, at a conviction rate of one per cent. Similar data for UAPA cases is not available, but a report last year by The Tribune indicated that not much has changed. According to the report, over the last seven years, a 100 UAPA cases in Punjab have led to only one conviction. The pattern — of the trial as punishment — repeats itself.
In its order granting bail to Gorkhe, Gaichor and Mali, the Supreme Court noted that the State had told the court last July that the trial would be completed in six months. But till January 2017, not even one of the 147 proposed witnesses had been fully examined. At that rate, they would have spent a lifetime in jail waiting for the trial to end. This is by no means an anomaly. In a recent article for DailyO, political activists Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves explain how such delays are the result of “a deliberate dalliance between police and prosecution to postpone service of summons, hold back witnesses, neglect bringing the muddemaal or physical evidence to court and other such means to ensure that the trial process is effectively paralysed.” The end result is a de facto “sentence” that keeps “the undertrial rotting in jail without the hassle of obtaining a conviction.” The chilling effect — other activists censoring themselves to avoid state harassment — is a nice bonus.
Both Ferreira and Gonsalves are speaking from experience, having spent years in jail on Naxalism-related charges. They add KKM to a long list that includes Binayak Sen, Sudhir Dhawale, Soni Sori, Laxman Madavi and, most recently, seven members of a Telangana Democratic Front fact-finding mission to Bastar.
Back at the chai-stall, after a round of tea and omelette pav, Gaichor breaks out into a song that he wrote in prison. Gorkhe taps out a rhythm on the plastic table. A full-on jam session breaks out, with everyone joining in on the chorus as they pick up the words. The woman who runs the stall stops her work to applaud when the song ends. Gaichor and Gorkhe make their way through more songs, in both Hindi and Marathi. The performance ends with a dedication to lokshahirs Annabhau Sathe and Vilas Ghogre. Despite the six-year ordeal, their revolutionary zeal remains intact. There is a lightness to their step, an eagerness to put their jail time behind them and get back to work. As we walk to wards my car, I ask Jagtap what is the first thing they’ll do once they’re home. “We’re going to Camp,” she says with a mischievous smile. “Beef khayenge.”
Lok shahirs, the thorns on the side of the Maharashtra government, are inspiring a new generation to take on the system
Sandhya, clad in a yellow sari, sits in her tin hut in Pune’s Bhavanipeet slum. “Before every performance my kids promise that they’ll never take up arms, that they’ll instead change the world with their duff (drum),” she tells filmmaker Anand Patwardhan in the documentary Jai Bhim Comrade. Sandhya is the mother of the lok shahir Sheetal Sathe who was booked by the anti-terror squad in 2013 for being a ‘Naxalite’.
In 2002, a bunch of students appalled by the genocide they had witnessed in Gujarat came together to protest in the way they knew best, through music. The group — that included Sathe — called itself the Kabir Kala Manch (KKM). And their form of protest was described by the audience as ‘lok shahiri’.
In the style of ‘tamasha’, the shahir or poet also acts as the narrator. He is normally written in as a witty chap with a funny bone, adding humour to the narrative. If you add the preface lok to shahir, the poet becomes a ‘people’s poet’. But being a lok shahir these days is serious business, for they are fast disappearing. “Ambedkarites are today’s bad boys in Maharashtra. All that we say or do is under surveillance,” says Shahir Sambhaji Bhagat.
No conversation on lok shahiri would be complete without a mention of ‘Maharashtra’s Gaddar’ Lok Shahir Sambhaji Bhagat. He is responsible to a great extent for the re-invention of this tradition as a form of protest akin to that of noted lok shahirs Annabhau Sathe and Amar Sheikh. Bhagat, the son of a cobbler from Mahu, is now perhaps one of the biggest thorns in the side of the Maharashtra government. But he is resilient; he refuses to give up his duff and his mission to “educate, agitate and organise” even after multiple stints in jail.
Bhagat is not somebody you can fit into a mould. He came to Mumbai indoctrinated with the ideology of the RSS, but that changed when his comrades at Siddhartha Hostel (also the birthplace of the Dalit Panther movement) introduced him to the works of Ambedkar and Marx. Here was a man now exposed to both sides of the spectrum, an anomaly in the system. His work started with Avahan Natya Manch in the 80s and 90s. He went with the late lok shahir Vilas Gohre from village to village with music and street plays, educating the masses. In turn, the duo learnt about economics, caste and culture. In the process, Bhagat and Gohre inspired a new generation to learn about lok shahiri.
Dhamma, a 28-year-old lok shahir from Satara with a penchant for colourful scarves and a Master’s degree in theatre, used to tour with Bhagat and now runs his own group called Yaalgar. Dhamma’s father is a shahir, and so was his father. “Satara is home to a lot of intellectuals and free thinkers. I was in Class X when Dr. Narendra Dabholkar was shot for questioning superstition, so I started working to create awareness among my people.”
“So where is the movement now?” I ask him. Dhamma says it is still very much alive and kicking, but some of the comrades have been taken out by ‘tatti’. The government’s sanitation programmes — the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan under the United Progressive Alliance and Swachh Bharat Abhiyan under the Bharatiya Janata Party — recruited multitudes of lok shahirs and theatre artists to educate the masses on sanitation. “My own father switched from writing on Ambedkar to writing about s**t because the latter paid better. This was a setback, but the movement is once again picking up pace.”
The next time I meet Dhamma, it is at a basti in Ambedkar Chowk, Kranti Nagar in Kandivali, where Yalgaar is performing in the middle of the street. The kids are all lined up and made to sit in front, while the adults are scattered looking at the 10 kurta-clad figures in front of them with curiosity. The shahir tells the tale of how he has travelled from Kashmir to Kanyakumari to figure out which business is the most lucrative for him, only to realise that there are more temples than schools across the nation. This has now led him to invest in the ‘ghanta’ business. To test the profitability of his newfound business, the Shahir positions his stall outside a temple, where an old man with a white beard is speaking to his ‘mitron’ inside — each time the old man makes a point, he tests his ‘ghanta’.These voices are a rarity, especially after June 2011, when Deepak Dhengle and Siddhartha of the KKM were picked up by the police. The rest of the members of the group, including Sathe, were forced to go underground after repeated police threats. Sathe and her husband were booked by the anti-terrorist squad for being Naxalites when they protested outside the State Assembly in April 2013. Sheetal was finally granted bail on June 28, 2013, on humanitarian grounds and the rest of the group was granted bail in January this year. The have now been acquitted of all charges. The police have now begun to catch wind of Dhamma and his comrades. Last week, they reached the university campus where the group often meets. “Aren’t you afraid, especially after what happened with KKM ?” I ask him.
Dhamma looks at me and smiles; the sudden silence in the room begins to feel loud.
Gaurangi Dang is a literature graduate from Delhi University who likes to tell stories.
Today drug addiction is bring problem in Punjab Remember and vote
The Punjabi song , by Taren Kaur a timely relrease for all state elections though specifically for punjab applies nation wide , has gone viral with 43,000 likes in 2 days .
Taren Kaur is a Singer-Songwriter, Composer, Playback Singer and Professional Kirtani (Singer of Gurbani Shabad Kirtan) from the UK. Influenced by Music from a young age and growing up with a Musical Father, she taught herself how to play the guitar, and after a short time began to write her own songs and lyrics, starting her musical journey as a singer-songwriter seriously in 2008.
She continued studying music and developing her music for the next few years, eventually going into English Playback Singing, with her music being published and gaining success in the media such as within the Hollywood Film Industry. Never forgetting her roots, she continued to be inspired by her Kirtani Father, her Ustaad Ji and other Ragi Jathas, following in their footsteps and singing Gurbani Shabad Kirtan herself also professionally.
It has always been a hope of hers to help educate and inform others about Sikhi in her own way, and recently she has begun to write songs in English, to help others learn about Sikhi and to share her love for it and music too. Her wish is to continue Playback Singing and Kirtan at professional levels and try to inspire others along the way.
“We were performing at the Ambedkar statue in Mumbai. We sat there for almost 3-4 hours, spoke to the press. No one turned up to arrest us. Later, the leaders from the Kabir Kala Manch Bachao Samiti who were with us, took us to meet the then home minster RR Patil. We were formally arrested by the ATS (Anti-Terrorism Squad) only after the meeting. After four years, we are out on bail. We are finally able to breathe freely and can sing our songs without any censorship.”
This is what Sagar Gorkhe and Ramesh Gaichor — members of the Kabir Kala Manch, who were arrested by the ATS for their alleged connection with Naxals — have to say. The Supreme Court granted them bail on 3 January 2017, four years after their arrest. They are now ready to get back to the streets with their new songs.
Kabir Kala Manch (KKM), a Pune-based cultural group, was formed in 2002 after the Gujarat riots. It was later branded as a ‘Maoist front’ by the state ATS. The ATS accused KKM artistes of being in contact with Naxals and working as per the instructions of Angela Sontakke and her husband Milind Teltumbde, as an urban sleeper cell for the Naxalite movement. The charge sheet against the KKM artistes states that they had allegedly participated in arms training with 150 Naxals in the jungle areas of Gadchiroli in Maharashtra between November 2011 and April 2012. The ATS booked Sheetal Sathe, Sachin Mali, Ramesh and Sagar along with eight other members of KKM under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). Sheetal and Sachin staged a satyagraha in Mumbai and surrendered themselves to the police in 2013. Sagar and Ramesh, who were then on the run, decided to appear in public after Sheetal and Sachin’s arrest. They staged a protest at the Ambedkar statue near the Mumbai Sessions Court and were later arrested by the ATS.
Members of the Kabir Kala Manch after their release from prison
“We never surrendered. When you are accused of being Naxals, the word ‘surrender’ has a different meaning. We had never committed any crime. So the question of ‘surrendering’ simply doesn’t arise,” they say. “When the police started arresting members of the KKM, we decided to go into hiding out of fear. We were on the run for more than six months. We were not able to find a way out. Then we came to know about the Kabir Kala Manch Bachao Sangharsh Samiti. We met Anand Patwardhan ,one of the members of the Samiti, and then consulted a lawyer. They suggested that we should follow the procedure of the law and face the prosecution,” Sagar adds.
“After our arrest, we were taken to the Arthur Road Jail. We were strip searched and sent to the barracks. First they kept us in one of the barracks along with many other jail inmates. Some of them were smoking, some of them were spitting, It was dirty, filthy — something we were not used to. This could’ve easily broken our morale. Later, we were shifted to the ‘anda cell’ in Taloja jail. It was a small, 6 x 12 room. It would get very lonely. They used to lock us up for most of the day. We could communicate with only the 12 people in the nearby barracks when we were allowed to go out for few hours. It was the struggle with the system and also the struggle within. We were still trying to come to terms with the fact that we had to spend time in this environment,” Sagar recounts.
Ramesh says in prison, they found some respite in practising their art: “We are artists. So the obvious form of expression for us was poetry. That is how we wrote our first song — it was about our condition inside the jail. It provided some relief, so we decided to keep writing.”
Even then, there was a barrier presented in the form of censorship. “Our only sources of information were the letters from our friends and the newspapers we read. But these were censored too… An officer in jail used to read the newspapers and cut out the part that he felt prisoners shouldn’t read. But letters from friends provided information, based on which we wrote the songs. We used to send these songs back to our friends through letters. But once an officer read one of the songs while examining our letter. The officers were told that we might instigate people through our songs. So he simply refused to send it — without any logical or legal reason. That was when we realised that our songs were going to get censored too. But we had to keep writing and find ways out to send them so that our troupe could perform,” says Sagar. These songs were later published as a book — Gajanadchi Sangharshagatha, meaning ‘songs of struggle from prison’.
When the High Court rejected their bail plea twice, the KKM members started to lose hope. Their lawyers, however, were optimistic and approached the Supreme Court.
The Kabir Kala manch artistes are happy to be back, with an opportunity to perform their songs without censorship
“It was a routine day. We only knew that our bail plea would be heard in the Supreme Court. So we kept waiting for the update. We were told by a constable that according to news on television, Sachin Mali had been granted bail. We enquired if he knew anything about our case, but he didn’t. We had asked one of the prisoners who was taken to court to check if there was any update. He came back but didn’t tell us anything. We thought our plea was either rejected or not heard, as it was a separate application. Sagar was feeling restless and kept trying to communicate with the prisoner. But he simply ignored us. It was only after some time that he turned to us and calmly told us that bail had been granted. He wanted to dramatise it! Everyone burst into laughter after hearing this,” says Ramesh.
They were released by the jail authorities after completing the necessary legal procedures. Their friends were waiting for them outside the jail premises. “We went to a nearby tea stall with them and started singing. We were performing outside the prison walls, without any censorship or tension. No one was going to stop us. We were back with our team,” say Sagar and Ramesh.
They were released after spending almost four years in prison. The Supreme Court observed that the investigating authorities had presented only one witness in court — out of the 147 witnesses mentioned in the charge sheet. This was cited as the prime reason for granting bail.
Ramesh and Sagar are set to perform again, under the KKM banner (the group has split, with Sheetal and Sachin forming their own troupe). They want to perform the songs they have penned during their jail term. But the struggle is far from over.
“We are invited for performances, only to be told that it has been cancelled. Being branded as Naxals has ruined our lives,” Sagar and Ramesh say. Sagar had to drop out of the final year of his BA Sociology course, while Ramesh — who was working as a professor at a Pune college — was forced to quit too. “Getting our jobs back is simply a dream for us. But we want to keep performing. Our new songs are ready. People can understand only when we simplify things for them. This is why we have decided to explain and criticise the decision of demonetization through our new songs. Songs on other topics are ready too,” says Ramesh, while Sagar adds, “We will keep fighting for justice. But we will continue to sing too.”
ISLAMABAD: Investigations into Salman Haider’s disappearance so far have revealed that a Toyota Surf vehicle, which is thought to have been following the activist before he went missing, had a fake number plate, police officials said on Friday.
According to them, the vehicle which may have been used by Haider’s abductors was last seen heading towards Rawalpindi from Koral Chowk. “Due to ongoing construction work on the Koral Chowk flyover, only one Safe City camera was able to capture footage of the suspected vehicle as it headed for Rawalpindi,” a police official said.
Police investigators are also analysing Haider’s cellphone record, officials said. “His mobile phone record showed his last location at Kak Pul on Islamabad Expressway,” an official said.
Police say they are investigating the case from various angles but have found no clue yet. “We are working on the case but there is nothing I can tell you at this moment,” another police officer told The Express Tribune.
An investigation team comprising two SPs and a DSP is working on the case. But curiously enough, SP Investigation Muhammad Ilyas, who is heading the investigation team, is on leave till January 17. Police, however, say that the team leader’s absence has not impacted the investigation.
Haider, a lecturer at the Rawalpindi’s Fatima Jinnah Women University and a rights activist, has been missing since the evening of December 6. Before his mobile phone was switched off, he texted his wife and told her that his car was parked near the Korang Town Chowk on Islamabad Expressway. He told his wife to collect the car from there as he was going for some necessary work. Later, his mobile phone was found switched off. An alleged kidnapping case was registered at Lohi Bher police station the next day.
Haider’s brother Zeeshan Haider says though the police have been cooperative with the family they have not come up with anything concrete. “There has been no clear line of action and the cooperation has been limited to assurances only,” he said.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 14th, 2017.
In Pakistan, a new generation of activists has emerged from the shadows of 9/11, subsequent wave of wars and atrocities, and the Lawyers’ Movement of 2007.
Progressive in beliefs, liberal in ideas, politically conscious, averse to religious fundamentalism; they are often mocked as ‘liberal fascists’, ‘mombatti mafia’, and ‘anti-state seculars’.
Outnumbered by their opponents, they have managed to keep the debates about modernity, place of religion in the public sphere, role of state in combating terrorism, and widespread misogyny in the society alive on social-media and have significantly influenced public discourse in the last few years.
La poésie est dans la rue – Poetry is in the streets – was a slogan raised by revolutionary students during the May 1968 revolt in Paris. The people of the Subcontinent have always spoken against power, corruption and injustices through poetry, and the gallant tradition of the poem has been passed down to our generation in the same undaunted spirit for which it is famous. Kafir Kafir is one such poem, and it was written by Salman Haider.
Salman Haider is missing since Friday night. He is an academic, a poet, and a human rights activist. Above all, he is a kind soul, restless and perturbed by the state of our society.
He could be heard and read at any occasion. From Shia killings to the APS massacre, from attacks on the Hazara community to the plight of missing persons in Balochistan, he was the voice of the voiceless, the armour of the defenceless. He was a rare voice of resistance marching through the barricades, tearing apart heaps of lies. He expressed the anger, concern, and all the other feelings that made us stand in solidarity with the oppressed.
There is something fundamentally wrong when open incitement to violence is permitted but sane voices are not tolerated. That we had to switch from hashtag #ArrestAbdulAziz to #RecoverSalmanHaider speaks volumes about the resolve of the state to root out terrorism.
That a proscribed group holds rallies in the heart of the capital while an enlightened activist disappears from the same city points to the shortcomings of the government. And this is exactly what Salman Haider was most critical of.
When violence is tolerated and dissent is crushed, rest assured that it’s not the pen but the gun that would write the future.
That a man speaking up for missing persons would himself go missing one day is not that surprising after all.
Truth comes with a heavy price. There might not be many who chose to ignore the dangers, but the ones who do are not only related to each other in heart and mind, but are also joined by their comrades in prisons and torture cells.
When Salman Haider spoke up for the missing persons, he may have known that that could be viewed as crossing some lines.
Thus he wrote yet another poem that I will not dare translate:
Abhi mere doston ke dost laa-pata ho rahay hein
Phir merey doston ki baari hai
Aur uske baad main
Woh file banun ga
Jisey mera baap adalat le ker jaye ga…
By the time you read these lines, the reasons behind his mysterious disappearance might still be unclear, similar to the countless souls gone missing in recent years. There might still be deliberate confusion as to the real motives of the people who took him away. And if poetry is going to be a crime here, the poem shall resist and fight until the safe return of Salman Haider and others like him.
A couple of years ago, when Coldplay’s Chris Martin was going through a divorce from the actress Gwyneth Paltrow and feeling down, a friend gave him a book to lift his spirits. It was a collection of poetry by Jalaluddin Rumi, the thirteenth-century Persian poet, translated by Coleman Barks. “It kind of changed my life,” Martin said later, in an interview. A track from Coldplay’s most recent album features Barks reciting one of the poems: “This being human is a guest house / Every morning a new arrival / A joy, a depression, a meanness, / some momentary awareness comes / as an unexpected visitor.”
Rumi has helped the spiritual journeys of other celebrities—Madonna, Tilda Swinton—some of whom similarly incorporated his work into theirs. Aphorisms attributed to Rumi circulate daily on social media, offering motivation. “If you are irritated by every rub, how will you ever get polished,” one of them goes. Or, “Every moment I shape my destiny with a chisel. I am a carpenter of my own soul.” Barks’s translations, in particular, are shared widely on the Internet; they are also the ones that line American bookstore shelves and are recited at weddings. Rumi is often described as the best-selling poet in the United States. He is typically referred to as a mystic, a saint, a Sufi, an enlightened man. Curiously, however, although he was a lifelong scholar of the Koran and Islam, he is less frequently described as a Muslim.
The words that Martin featured on his album come from Rumi’s “Masnavi,” a six-book epic poem that he wrote toward the end of his life. Its fifty thousand lines are mostly in Persian, but they are riddled with Arabic excerpts from Muslim scripture; the book frequently alludes to Koranic anecdotes that offer moral lessons. (The work, which some scholars consider unfinished, has been nicknamed the Persian Koran.) Fatemeh Keshavarz, a professor of Persian studies at the University of Maryland, told me that Rumi probably had the Koran memorized, given how often he drew from it in his poetry. Rumi himself described the “Masnavi” as “the roots of the roots of the roots of religion”—meaning Islam—“and the explainer of the Koran.” And yet little trace of the religion exists in the translations that sell so well in the United States. “The Rumi that people love is very beautiful in English, and the price you pay is to cut the culture and religion,” Jawid Mojaddedi, a scholar of early Sufism at Rutgers, told me recently.
Rumi was born in the early thirteenth century, in what is now Afghanistan. He later settled in Konya, in present-day Turkey, with his family. His father was a preacher and religious scholar, and he introduced Rumi to Sufism. Rumi continued his theological education in Syria, where he studied the more traditional legal codes of Sunni Islam, and later returned to Konya as a seminary teacher. It was there that he met an elder traveller, Shams-i-Tabriz, who became his mentor. The nature of the intimate friendship between the two is much debated, but Shams, everyone agrees, had a lasting influence on Rumi’s religious practice and his poetry. In a new biography of Rumi, “Rumi’s Secret,” Brad Gooch describes how Shams pushed Rumi to question his scriptural education, debating Koranic passages with him and emphasizing the idea of devotion as finding oneness with God. Rumi would come to blend the intuitive love for God that he found in Sufism with the legal codes of Sunni Islam and the mystical thought he learned from Shams.
This unusual tapestry of influences set Rumi apart from many of his contemporaries, Keshavarz told me. Still, Rumi built a large following in cosmopolitan Konya, incorporating Sufis, Muslim literalists and theologians, Christians, and Jews, as well as the local Sunni Seljuk rulers. In “Rumi’s Secret,” Gooch helpfully chronicles the political events and religious education that influenced Rumi. “Rumi was born into a religious family and followed the proscribed rules of daily prayer and fasting throughout his entire life,” Gooch writes. Even in Gooch’s book, though, there is a tension between these facts and the desire to conclude that Rumi, in some sense, transcended his background—that, as Gooch puts it, he “made claims for a ‘religion of love’ that went beyond all organized faiths.” What can get lost in such readings is the extent to which Rumi’s Muslim teaching shaped even those ideas. As Mojadeddi notes, the Koran acknowledges Christians and Jews as “people of the book,” offering a starting point toward universalism. “The universality that many revere in Rumi today comes from his Muslim context.”
The erasure of Islam from Rumi’s poetry started long before Coldplay got involved. Omid Safi, a professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at Duke University, says that it was in the Victorian period that readers in the West began to uncouple mystical poetry from its Islamic roots. Translators and theologians of the time could not reconcile their ideas about a “desert religion,” with its unusual moral and legal codes, and the work of poets like Rumi and Hafez. The explanation they settled on, Safi told me, was “that these people are mystical not because of Islam but in spite of it.” This was a time when Muslims were singled out for legal discrimination—a law from 1790 curtailed the number of Muslims who could come into the United States, and a century later the U.S. Supreme Court described the “intense hostility of the people of Moslem faith to all other sects, and particularly to Christians.” In 1898, in the introduction to his translation of the “Masnavi,” Sir James Redhouse wrote, “The Masnavi addresses those who leave the world, try to know and be with God, efface their selves and devote themselves to spiritual contemplation.” For those in the West, Rumi and Islam were separated.
In the twentieth century, a succession of prominent translators—among them R. A. Nicholson, A. J. Arberry, and Annemarie Schimmel—strengthened Rumi’s presence in the English-language canon. But it’s Barks who vastly expanded Rumi’s readership. He is not a translator so much as an interpreter: he does not read or write Persian. Instead, he transforms nineteenth-century translations into American verse.
It’s verse of a very particular kind. Barks was born in 1937 and grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He received his Ph.D. in English literature and published his first book of poetry, “The Juice,” in 1971. The first time he heard of Rumi was later that decade, when another poet, Robert Bly, handed him a copy of translations by Arberry and told him that they had to be “released from their cages”—that is, put into American free verse. (Bly, who has published poetry inThe New Yorker for more than thirty years—and whose book “Iron John: A Book About Men,” from 1990, greatly informed the modern men’s movement—later translated some of Rumi’s poems himself.) Barks had never studied Islamic literature. But soon afterward, he told me recently, over the phone from his home in Georgia, he had a dream. In the dream, he was sleeping on a cliff near a river. A stranger appeared in a circle of light and said, “I love you.” Barks had not seen this man before, but he met him the following year, at a Sufi order near Philadelphia. The man was the order’s leader. Barks began spending his afternoons studying and rephrasing the Victorian translations that Bly had given him. Since then, he has published more than a dozen Rumi books.
In our conversation, Barks described Rumi’s poetry as “the mystery of opening the heart,” a thing that, he told me, “you can’t say in language.” In order to get at that inexpressible thing, he has taken some liberties with Rumi’s work. For one thing, he has minimized references to Islam. Consider the famous poem “Like This.” Arberry translates one of its lines, rather faithfully, as “Whoever asks you about the Houris, show (your) face (and say) ‘Like this.’ ” Houris are virgins promised in Paradise in Islam. Barks avoids even the literal translation of that word; in his version, the line becomes, “If anyone asks you how the perfect satisfaction of all our sexual wanting will look, lift your face and say, Like this.” The religious context is gone. And yet, elsewhere in the same poem, Barks keeps references to Jesus and Joseph. When I asked him about this, he told me that he couldn’t recall if he had made a deliberate choice to remove Islamic references. “I was brought up Presbyterian,” he said. “I used to memorize Bible verses, and I know the New Testament more than I know the Koran.” He added, “The Koran is hard to read.”
Like many others, Omid Safi credits Barks with introducing Rumi to millions of readers in the United States; in morphing Rumi into American verse, Barks has dedicated considerable time and love to the poet’s works and life. And there are other versions of Rumi that are even further removed from the original—such as the New Age books by Deepak Chopra and Daniel Ladinsky which are marketed and sold as Rumi but bear little resemblance to the poet’s writing. Chopra, an author of spiritual works and an alternative-medicine enthusiast, admits that his poems are not Rumi’s words. Rather, as he writes in the introduction to “The Love Poems of Rumi,” they are “ ‘moods’ we have captured as certain phrases radiated from the original Farsi, giving life to a new creation but retaining the essence of its source.”
Discussing these New Age “translations,” Safi said, “I see a type of ‘spiritual colonialism’ at work here: bypassing, erasing, and occupying a spiritual landscape that has been lived and breathed and internalized by Muslims from Bosnia and Istanbul to Konya and Iran to Central and South Asia.” Extracting the spiritual from the religious context has deep reverberations. Islam is regularly diagnosed as a “cancer,” including by General Michael Flynn, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for national-security adviser, and, even today, policymakers suggestthat non-Western and nonwhite groups have not contributed to civilization.
For his part, Barks sees religion as secondary to the essence of Rumi. “Religion is such a point of contention for the world,” he told me. “I got my truth and you got your truth—this is just absurd. We’re all in this together and I’m trying to open my heart, and Rumi’s poetry helps with that.” One might detect in this philosophy something of Rumi’s own approach to poetry: Rumi often amended texts from the Koran so that they would fit the lyrical rhyme and meter of the Persian verse. But while Rumi’s Persian readers would recognize the tactic, most American readers are unaware of the Islamic blueprint. Safi has compared reading Rumi without the Koran to reading Milton without the Bible: even if Rumi was heterodox, it’s important to recognize that he was heterodox in a Muslim context—and that Islamic culture, centuries ago, had room for such heterodoxy. Rumi’s works are not just layered with religion; they represent the historical dynamism within Islamic scholarship.
Rumi used the Koran, Hadiths, and religion in an explorative way, often challenging conventional readings. One of Barks’s popular renditions goes like this: “Out beyond ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing, there is a field. / I will meet you there.” The original version makes no mention of “rightdoing” or “wrongdoing.” The words Rumi wrote were iman (“religion”) and kufr (“infidelity”). Imagine, then, a Muslim scholar saying that the basis of faith lies not in religious code but in an elevated space of compassion and love. What we, and perhaps many Muslim clerics, might consider radical today is an interpretation that Rumi put forward four hundred years ago.
Such readings were not entirely unique back then. Rumi’s works reflected a broader push and pull between religious spirituality and institutionalized faith—though with a wit that was unmatched. “Historically speaking, no text has shaped the imagination of Muslims—other than the Koran—as the poetry of Rumi and Hafez,” Safi said. This is why Rumi’s voluminous writings, produced at a time when scribes had to copy works by hand, have survived.
“Language isn’t just a means of communication,” the writer and translator Sinan Antoon has said. “It’s a reservoir of memory, tradition, and heritage.” As conduits between two cultures, translators take on an inherently political project. They must figure out how to make, for instance, a thirteenth-century Persian poet comprehensible to a contemporary American audience. But they have a responsibility to remain true to the original work—an act that, in the case of Rumi, would help readers to recognize that a professor of Sharia could also write some of the world’s mostly widely read love poetry.
Jawid Mojaddedi is now in the midst of a years-long project to translate all six books of the “Masnavi.” Threeofthem have been published; the fourth is due out this spring. His translations acknowledge the Islamic and Koranic texts in the original by using italics to denote whenever Rumi switches to Arabic. His books are also riddled with footnotes. Reading them requires some effort, and perhaps a desire to see beyond one’s preconceptions. That, after all, is the point of translation: to understand the foreign. As Keshavarz put it, translation is a reminder that “everything has a form, everything has culture and history. A Muslim can be like that, too.”
As the fest season in DU approaches, one of the most discussed topics on campus is the celeb performers being invited to perform in various colleges. While co-ed colleges are in the process of deciding who to call, most girls colleges in DU are clear about who not to call for the fest season. Student union members in most girls colleges have taken a conscious call to not invite artists whose songs’ lyrics are derogatory towards women. Artists who ‘objectify women and make sexist comments in their songs’ are not being invited, they say. “What is the point in protesting for women’s rights if we are entertained by songs which say I swear chhoti dress mein bomb lagdi mennu?” asks Samridhi Bajaj, general secretary of the students’ union, Miranda House.
The lyrics are abusive, offensive and demeaning, we do not stand for any of this’
The student union members of girls colleges say that they do not even consider these artists for their fests. “We are trying to propagate the ideas of feminism and equality, while these artists are using their art form to demean women. The lyrics of songs like Brown Rang and Saturday Saturday are offensive, abusive and completely opposite of what we are taught in college. In these songs, women are mere objects obsessed with makeup, shopping and partying, so we can’t think of calling these artists for obvious reasons,” says Smitha Sabu, treasurer of students’ union of Lady Shri Ram College for Women.
Raavi Jotwani, vice president of the Jesus and Mary College students union, adds, “Lyrics like Manne suna hai tu twenty plus ho gayi and Yahaan sari dance dikhari hai, gori kamar hilari hai (Party by Fazilpuria), are sexist and offensive and we are not trying to promote that culture. We prefer a female artist who believes in ideas like ours and who can understand us better than someone who tears us apart in our own college on our fest. We are taught that women should be confident, competent and compassionate and the lyrics of these artists are completely opposite so they are a big ‘No’ for our fests.”
‘Can’t preach women empowerment in classes and practice women objectification during fests’
The songs might be big hits but that is not even a factor being considered. Student union members usually invite artists depending on their popularity, but this consideration takes a back seat with artists who have offensive lyrics. “How can you call a woman ‘bomb’? We do not even consider artists like Honey Singh, Badshahand other Punjabi singers for our fests. This is not a joke, you cannot laugh about it. We are always cautious during our selection of artists,” says Garima Tandon, president of the students’ union of Gargi college.
Komal Priya Singh, president of Kamala Nehru College (KNC) adds, “We wanted to call Benny Dayal last year for our fest. Our teachers asked us about his songs, and when we told them that he has sung Badtameez Dil. They asked, ‘What is this song? Do you want to give this message to all those who come for your fest?’ When our teachers do not approve of ‘Badtameez Dil’, songs objectifying women are out of the question. Plus, our fest has a social message attached to it, so how can we talk about women empowerment when we are promoting women objectification through these acts?”
Indeep Bakshi (left) and Badshah are the artists behind the song ‘Saturday Saturday’